WASHINGTON – Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California appears likely to win election as House majority leader on Thursday when Republicans vote in the wake of Eric Cantor's surprising primary defeat, but an unpredictable, contest to select a new party whip may tell more about the House GOP's future.
Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana vied for the whip's job in a race that several lawmakers said would turn on geographical, personal and ideological factors in a party where cohesiveness is often elusive.
Yet not even victory in Thursday's election was assurance of a long lease on office inside the leadership.
The rank and file will reconvene after mid-term elections in the fall, and first-term Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., predicted that when it does, "I don't think anybody will be uncontested."
This week's elections themselves were a reminder of the turmoil within the party. Cantor, the current majority leader, unexpectedly lost a primary last week to tea party-backed David Brat, an economics professor and political newcomer, and announced he would step down from his leadership post on July 30.
That cleared the way for hurry-up leadership elections only a few months before the fall campaign with control of Congress at stake.
Numerous lawmakers and aides said McCarthy, the current whip, was well-positioned to move up a step into Cantor's current job, despite a late challenge from Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.
Making his case behind closed doors, Labrador told fellow Republicans during the day that if they supported the status quo – meaning McCarthy – "you will prove that we are still not listening" to the public. "We will break our pledge and with that we may lose the ability to regain control of the Senate and eventually win the presidency." Labrador's office distributed a copy of his remarks.
But Labrador, himself, was suspect in the eyes of many Republicans, having spent months as part of a group that sought unsuccessfully to reach a bipartisan compromise on immigration legislation, an effort that tea party-backed lawmakers adamantly opposed.
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, a McCarthy ally, said a small part of the rank-and-file conservatives comprises an "exotic club around here who's never going to be happy with anything," he said.
"When we implemented their strategy of shutting down the government, it was a miserable failure. And now you have the same people who led us in that direction wanting to lead us again," he said.
The whip's race was far harder to handicap.
Scalise, 48, positioned himself as an agent of change, and drew support from members of the Republican Study Committee, a conservatives' organization that he heads, and from lawmakers arguing that GOP-voting states need more representation at the leadership table.
"At least one out of four of our leaders ought to come from a red state inasmuch as 60 percent of our membership is from a red state," said Rep. Mo Brooks of Missouri. "But as of today we're zero for four in house leadership."
The current top leaders include Speaker John Boehner, from Ohio, in addition to Cantor, a Virginian, McCarthy and Roskam.
Roskam, 52, is McCarthy's deputy whip, and in a bow to rank-and-file sentiment, has promised to name a red-state deputy if he wins.
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, he said, "There is a heroic majority here, there is a majority in our conference that wants to move forward and do great things, and I want to be part of trying to bring that out."
Stutzman, 37, entered the race after the other two, at a time it appeared that Scalise was having trouble amassing a majority in his race against Roskam. He is trying to tap into suspicions among some tea party-backed lawmakers and others that Scalise has sometimes been too accommodating with the leadership from his perch as head of the Republican Study Committee.
In comments to reporters during the day, he said he is confident he has 50 votes – a total that would likely relegate him to third. Asked which of his two rivals he would endorse if he was eliminated on an inconclusive first ballot, he said, "I don't have an answer yet."